It’s a difficult thing, interviewing people about their desolation. But an Associated Press team went to Grays Harbor County, Washington, and came away with a deeply reported portrait of a place that had voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1932, but placed a bet on Donald Trump in November as its rescuer from addiction and economic malaise.
Sensitively and penetratingly, the team of Claire Galofaro, David Goldman and Martha Irvine used text, photos and video to tell the tale of an old logging county that “answered Donald Trump's call to the country's forgotten corners.” A half-year into the Republican’s term, they found varying degrees of faith in his ability to make a difference in their lives.
The team reported aggressively before arriving in Grays Harbor, talking to politicians, advocacy groups and everyday people to try to get a sense of the place and those who might best tell its story. But that did little to prepare them for what they encountered once on the ground, perhaps best exemplified by the images – in video and photos – of a young man shooting up under a bridge near a memorial to Kurt Cobain, the rock star and son of Grays Harbor who himself died of an overdose.
People on all sides of this issue were wary. ...The AP team worked hard to assure its sources that their stories were in trusted hands.
People on all sides of this issue were wary. Trump’s supporters feel under siege in the media; community activists hated to see their town in a story about deaths of despair; public health officials worried that the reporters would scare off clients struggling with drug addiction whose trust they had worked for years and years to earn.
Again and again, they worked hard to assure sources that their stories were in trusted hands. They met with the health department employees who run the needle exchange for over an hour to coax them into letting them report and shoot there. The employees were reluctant at first, fearing it would be disruptive or intimidating to their clients. But eventually, they were convinced that the reporters would be respectful, and that the stories of people still struggling with addiction are important voices often left unheard. With the team in place, many who came to the exchange were open about their addiction and its toll on their lives.
The team had been told not to go to the river tent city without an invite – not because it is dangerous, but because it is a tight-knit community distrustful of outsiders and mourning the loss of family member. They hung around the needle exchange for hours and got to know people who live on the river, and eventually they were told it would be OK to visit. That connection proved integral to telling the story of this place and its most vulnerable citizens.
The same was true of officials at the methadone clinic, which at first forbade the team from interviewing patients, on or off camera. But they worked with the managers to set parameters that made them comfortable enough to allow them access for one morning; there, they met more people trying desperately to stay off drugs and rebuild their lives, while terrified that changes to the health care system might make that impossible.
And so they told the stories of the Rev. Sarah Moore, who tallies the initials of those lost to drug overdoses on a tattoo that winds around her bicep. And Anjelic Baker, who cries at the prospect of Obamacare disappearing – and with it, her drug treatments. And antique store owner Stacie Blodgett: “America, when viewed through the bars on Blodgett's windows, looks a lot less great than it used to be,” so she voted for Trump. Now, she’s beginning to regret it.
"Has he done anything good yet?" she asks. "Has he?"
For a harrowing and essential report on a community whose suffering mirrors that of many other corners of America, Garofalo, Goldman and Irvine win this week’s $500 prize.